Vanhoozer: Doctrine as Epic
Guest Blog Post
Kevin Vanhoozer analyses a problem with systematic theology (which can alos be applied to confessional statements which result in “confessionalism”), preferring the term “epic” theology. He writes:
Epic provides a comprehensive account of how things are told from the perspective of a single “voice.”
…Transposed to theology epic takes the form of a monological system that unfolds its story from an absolute perspective. Systematic theologies resemble epics to the extent that they appear to be written by impersonal and omniscent narrators who stand nowhere in particular.
…What makes Christian doctrine epic is not its appeal to Scripture as such so much as its attempt to make one interpretation of the biblical testimony — an interpretation that necessarily, though surreptitiously, draws on the thought forms and perspectives of the interpreter — absolute. The epic voice in theology, assuming as it does the unversial applicability of its perspective, encourages uncritical repetition. Epic invites admiration rather than action. It fails to recognize that new situations may require new formulations.
…Epic prefers to rehearse the past. Even an inerrant epic is theologically inert unless it is performed. …there is no place for the eschatological, for the already/not yet, for the reader’s ongoing participation in the events of the narrative (The Drama of Doctrine, pgs 85-86).
Some of Vanhoozer’s thoughts may sound radical and subversive. He is actually arguing a very conservative opinion of Scripture and theology. And yet, he is definitely calling for a “new” understanding of how we conceive of reading the Bible and doing theology.
Vanhoozer develops further his critique of “epic” theology under the categorical heading “cognitive-propsitionalist theology.” He writes:
Such theology is “cognitive” in its emphasis on coming to know the truth of objective realities and “propositionalist” in its emphasis on language as the primary truth-bearing informative medium.
…What is tempting in propositionalist theology is the idea that one can “master” divinity by learning the system of truths communicated through the language and literature of the Bible. What is tempting is the thought that one can package the Bible in a conceptual scheme that is tidier than the original. What is tempting is the suggestion that it is enough to know the information thus packaged. It is precisely this sense of distantness, even more than the grandeur of the systematizing vision, that makes propositionalist theology look epic. It is ultimately not a grand but a narrow vision, however, because it isolates the truths of Scripture, and the theologian, from the larger economy of salvation of which Scripture and its interpreters are a part. Cognitive-propositionalist theology risks deflecting doctrine from its proper role of drawing us into the drama by turning it into an ossified, formulaic knowledge that will either wilt on the vine or, on another plausible scenario, be used as a shibbolethic instrument of power” (The Drama of Doctrine, pgs 86, 87, 88).
These comments represent what I have been trying to formulate in my mind as an objection to “confessionalism” as it manifests in certain Christian communities today. Vanhoozer is not only correct theoretically but in practice too. The last paragraph is especially poignant and pointed. It is well worth taking seriously.